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Published January 07 2011

Lake Sakakawea: Water charge upsets many

BISMARCK – North Dakotans voiced strong opposition Thursday to the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to charge users for taking water out of Lake Sakakawea.

A packed room of more than 150 people attended a public meeting on the draft Lake Sakakawea Surplus Water Report and Environmental Assessment.

North Dakota state officials came out strongly against the proposal. Gov. Jack Dalrymple called it “an outrage” that corps policies are now blocking access to the free flow of the Missouri River, calling it the “rightful property of the state of North Dakota.”

Dickinson’s Southwest Water Authority CEO Mary Massad said the corps is trying to implement East Coast water law in the Western states.

“This will just have a huge impact as far as the cost of water for everyone, and North Dakota has given up so much already just to have the (Garrison) Dam,” she said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also testified against the corps and said he was confident a court would side with the state if it came down to legal action.

“While it is not just, nor do I think legal, for you to demand that we get your permission to use water that naturally flows through our state, it borders on insult – on insult – to demand that we pay for it,” he said.

The report proposes temporarily making up to 257,000 acre-feet of storage per year within the Garrison Dam/Lake Sakakawea Project available for municipal and industrial water supply use.

This will allow the Omaha District to enter into surplus water agreements to meet regional water needs until a permanent reallocation study is completed, the corps states.

“It means that, before they can place a water intake into the water, they have to have a contract in place,” Omaha-based spokeswoman Monique Farmer said. “There is going to be a fee for taking water out of the lake.”

The corps cites the 1944 Flood Control Act as its authority, saying the secretary of war is authorized to make surplus water agreements with states, municipalities, private concerns or individuals at such prices and on such terms as he may deem reasonable.

Farmer said corps officials are acting on this more than 60 years later because they have been directed by headquarters to be in compliance with the act.

Dalrymple said the corps should not be able to charge water storage costs to repay the construction costs of dams for surplus water when repayment contracts were never required at the start of construction.

Dalrymple, whose speech received a standing ovation, said financial claims have not been sought in the past and contradict states’ rights and congressional authorizations.

“Using U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ easements to block North Dakota’s access to its own rightful water supplies is not only an improper use of the intended purpose of these easements, but is also an unconscionable and unjust attempt to achieve monetary gain where none is justified,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall brought up the issue in his State of the Tribal address to state lawmakers.

“We stand with the state of North Dakota to oppose the corps,” he said to loud applause.

During the corps’ public meeting, Hall said the corps’ plan would adversely affect and limit the ability to use water for tribal needs.

“Why would the corps charge us for our own water? It really befuddles me,” he said.

Farmer said North Dakota isn’t being singled out. The same process will occur for each of the reservoirs throughout the Missouri River Basin within the Omaha District boundary, she said.

Those who weren’t at the Bismarck meeting can still offer comments. The report is available at www.nwo.usace.army.mil/html/pd-p/review_plans.html.

Written comments can be sent to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District; CENWOOD-T; ATTN: Lake Sakakawea Surplus Water Report and EA; 1616 Capitol Avenue; Omaha NE 68102-4901.

Comments can be e-mailed to garrisonsurplusstudy@usace.army.mil. Comments must be postmarked or received no later than Feb. 1.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.